Enthralling and disturbing – NZ Opera’s take on Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw”

New Zealand Opera presents:
BENJAMIN BRITTEN – The Turn of the Screw
(libretto by Myfawny Piper, after the novella by Henry James)

Conductor: Holly Mathieson
Director: Thomas de Mallet Burgess
Designer: Tracy Grant Lord
Lighting: Matthew Marshall
Assistant Director: Eleanor Bishop

Cast: Anna Leese (Governess)
Jared Holt (Prologue/Peter Quint)
Madeleine Pierard (Miss Jessel)
Patricia Wright (Mrs Grose)
Alexa Harwood (Flora)
Alexandros Swallow (Miles)

Members of Orchestra Wellington
Leader: Justine Cormack
Piano/celesta: David Kelly

The Opera House, Wellington

Thursday, October 3rd 2019
(Wellington: Saturday. 5th October

Auckland: 18th, 20th, 23rd October)


It’s difficult to think of another opera whose overall theme, story-line and characterisations are more interlaced by ambiguities as Britten’s The Turn of the Screw –  the story on which the opera is based, Henry James’ novella of the same name, carries its own versions of much the same kinds of imponderables, though the opera seems, if anything, to further complicate and intensify the issues. The story tells of a young woman securing a job as governess of two children in a remote setting, only to feel with increasing conviction that the ghosts of a former valet and governess in the house are attempting to “possess” the minds of her young charges for their own purposes.

A critic in 1898 called Henry James’ work “A deliberate, powerful and horribly successful study of the magic of evil”, a judgement that has since been channelled into various critical streams regarding both novella and opera – firstly, that the governess is protecting the children from evil as presented by the ghosts; secondly, that the governess is “imagining” the ghosts, and is thus herself a danger to the children; and thirdly, that the story is purposefully ambiguous in not allowing the reader to decide between these viewpoints. The opera seems to uphold the third course, by ultimately refusing to ascribe blame for the narrative’s ultimate tragedy of the ending to any one cause or party, and leaving us with James’s own dictum, “Make the reader think the evil, make him think it for himself, and (one is) released from weak specifications”.

Mfawny Piper’s libretto gives the ghosts (both mute presences in James’s story) their own voices, well-wrought inventions which enable some background to the past – in particular, these “flesh out” something of the housekeeper Mrs Gros’s knowledge and judgement of each of the characters. She expresses this to the governess, most damningly of the former valet Peter Quint who, in the housekeeper‘s words “made free” with everyone, including one of the children, the boy Miles. Productions of the opera have, since the premiere in 1954, not unexpectedly moved from presenting an out-and-out “ghost” story, and “gone with the times”, by turns reinterpreting the work with Freudian depictions of a frustrated spinster bringing a fevered imagination to bear upon the scenario, fresh awarenesses of issues such as sexual exploitation and corruption of children, and gay “subtexts”, one example of the latter citing the celebrated recitation of Latin nouns by one of the children to the governess, as a “schoolboy list of phallic expressions”.

To its credit, the current production avoids any gross representation of any of those standpoints (as some ego-ridden contemporary opera presentations of any of the standard repertoire mercilessly and deleteriously indulge themselves in), and instead hints at possibilities, leaving its audiences in a state of wonderment (a version of James’s “leaving it to the reader”), which personalises reactions to the details of the events and their outcomes, thus creating far more interesting theatrical situations for people to “take away” from and ponder what they’ve witnessed. An example of this was the scene in the second act where the governess (Anna Leese) sits with the half-undressed Miles (Alexandros Swallow) on his bed, the young woman bent on competing for the boy’s attentions with the marauding ghost of Peter Quint (Jared Holt). The governess’s obvious “longing” for the affections of the children’s guardian (as witness her demeanour when previously  reading aloud what she had written in a letter to him) has sublimated into a version of the same longing for affection from Miles  –  here the dialogue suggested more the talk of lovers who need something from one another than of adult-and-child interaction, yet with the physical boundaries between the two (just) maintained.

In this respect, Anna Leese’s portrayal of the emotionally constrained and psychologically besieged governess – in thrall to a man (her employer, the children’s guardian) she has never met but is bonded to by a sense of duty permeated with her own Molotov-cocktail mix of fantasies involving his approval and her own self-worth – was incredibly finely-crafted. Together with her director, Thomas de Mallet Burgess, she built with great subtlety and whole-heartedness a character with endless depths of longing and anxiety, her voice running the gamut of expressiveness as regards its different versions of beauty and presence. Her singing, though not always entirely clear in terms of diction, gave voice to a character whose sincerity we might not have doubted but whose capacity for self-knowledge and decisive action seemed difficult to fathom, right up to the work’s unnerving conclusion. We left the theatre still carrying a relationship with her that resonated in a somewhat disturbing and unresolved manner – and within our consciousness of what we’ve witnessed echoed most hauntingly that phrase of W.B. Yeats’ from his poem “The Second Coming”, here given by Mfawny Piper to the ghosts to sing separately and together, pertaining to the children, but ultimately to all of us  – “The ceremony of innocence is drowned”.

The governess’s dramatic foil was Patricia Wright’s sonorously-delivered assumption of Mrs Grose, the housekeeper, a long-time servant at the house – a plainly-spoken, simple woman, great of heart, but conscious of her position and lack of education in comparison to the governess. Both singers negotiated this governess/housekeeper relationship with great pliancy and spontaneity, conveying the fragility of things at the point near the story’s climax where the housekeeper took the girl Flora away as if losing faith in the governess’s ability to protect her. I thought Wright’s announcing to the latter (with what seemed like some strangely grim satisfaction) that her letter to the children’s guardian was not delivered, had all the portents of doom required, even if her character at that point  was only a messenger.

The ghosts, Jared Holt’s darkly dangerous Peter Quint, and Madeleine Pierard’s compelling, positively gothic Miss Jessel, were introduced as “presences” long before they actually appeared – their silhouetting on a diaphanous stage-curtain at first underlined their “in the mind” aspect, but their presence was soon made all too tangible at subsequent moments. Jared Holt’s melismatic calls of Miles’ name produced a “frisson” of compelling unease, while Madeleine Pierard’s relatively darker but still riveting tones summonsing Flora gave a more sinister impression of rising from below (perhaps from the lake waters in the house’s grounds).  Holt relished the quasi-heroic music of self-portrait, his words styling him as “ the riderless horse” or the “hero-highwayman”, images associated with unfettered action and feral freedom – Pierard’s darker, more piteous music tied in with her character’s equating with “wronged women” of earlier times. The two ghosts brought matters to a head between one another superbly in their evocation of a shared past, one in which Quint was the wrongdoer and Miss Jessel his victim, uniting only in their common purpose of seeking “a friend”, Quint desiring Miles and Miss Jessel wanting Flora.

No praise can be too high for the on-stage work of the young singers playing the roles of the opera’s two children here in Wellington – Alexa Harwood’s Flora and Alexandros Swallow’s Miles. Neither could be faulted regarding what seemed to me like their total identification with the characters, as if they had each stepped into their respective roles and filled them out from within. Musically, too, each sang like both the angels and the mischief-makers one knows children are capable of appearing to be, all the while. Alexa Harwood’s Flora most convincingly wove her stage movements into the fabric of her singing performance, while Alexandros Swallow, his Miles more often the follower than the leader, matched his stage-sister at every turn, both through gesture and voice, bringing also his considerable theatrical skills to precisely-honed fruition in miming complex piano-playing patterns most convincingly. Each in their different ways conveyed the effect of the drama’s potential for harm upon his or her own character, to profound effect – remarkable performances!

I feel compelled to make the point that, though the opera was sung in English, a good deal of the text I found hard to follow, almost always when the voices were under pressure or singing in ensemble – a number of people I spoke to afterwards confirmed that they would have appreciated surtitles to better serve their understanding of the plot’s finer detail. The clearest enunciation came from Jared Holt in a piano-accompanied Prologue (the opening of a “written account” of the governess’s story) which he delivered in the role of a narrator. In my experience this loss of clarity is a common phenomenon with higher solo voices singing in the vernacular in a large venue – so, in making the difference for listeners between (a) a merely-pleasant-sounding and (b) a “made-more- intelligible” utterance I feel this would be something that everybody would surely want – having said all of this, I find myself wondering how singers themselves feel (felt?) about it?

Initially I was disappointed that the chamber ensemble accompanying the singers was set so far back on stage, almost as a kind of “noises off” accompaniment, having enjoyed so much the vivid interactions between voices and prominently-placed instruments in various recordings I listened to – in the course of the opera’s action I modified this viewpoint to an enjoyment and appreciation of the atmospheric ebb and flow of Britten’s scoring throughout the work. There was certainly no real lessening of impact during the opera’s most forceful moments, once our ears had gotten “the pitch of the hall”, and the quieter, more distant moments had a tragic beauty whose irony gave even more of an edge to the story’s overall impact.

The instrumental playing (largely members of Orchestra Wellington, led by violinist Justine Cormack), and complemented by pianist David Kelly (whose stylish solo accompanying Jared Holt’s narration opened the work) was directed with precision, verve and enthralling atmosphere by New Zealand-born conductor Holly Mathieson, whose work I hope to hear again before too long. I did want to SEE the players play, but as I’ve said the scenario called for a different conception which worked powerfully in its own way.

I couldn’t fathom at first why Alexandros Swallow (who sang Miles) was the first to appear on stage at the work’s beginning UNTIL he sat down at the piano and APPEARED to begin to play the aforementioned solo that accompanied the tenor to begin the opera – and then I remembered he was to play the piano in one of the opera’s later scenes (Variation XIII)  – both sequences were superbly played by the ACTUAL pianist David Kelly (and brilliantly mimed on stage by the young singer!). There were various divergencies of movement and stage placement from what I was expecting, all of which I thought worked save for the appearance of a bed pushed in for no apparent reason at the beginning of Act Two. The rest flowed with irresistible momentum!

Finally, this was a production that looked good and convincing, and maintained a kind of unity throughout – perhaps the scene by the lake during which Flora encounters Miss Jessel didn’t have much “outdoor” ambience, being kept under the omnipresent pall of darkly-inclined variants of illumination that marked nearly all of the scenarios! Still, Matthew Marshall’s lighting generally held us in thrall, scene by scene, by turns revealing and concealing, reassuring and malevolent, warm and chill, delicate and laden, the ambiences working well with designer Tracy Grant Lord’s “framed” portals which gave the spaces at once telescopically-extended vistas with oddly claustrophobic effects – “black holes” of imaginary space in which the characters play out life’s illusions. Director Thomas de Mallet Burgess, together with his assistant Eleanor Bishop, presided over a lucid, if challengingly ambivalent scenario of interaction between the players in the drama, encouraging the essences and their contradictions as expressed in people’s motivations for doing what they do – for ostensible good or evil, or for ends that accord with Peter Quint’s desperate enjoiner to Miles  – “You must be free!” Like anything (and this is perhaps Britten’s (and James’) ultimate message – such freedom comes at a price.




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